Two weeks ago, in a New Year’s Day message (An Optimistic Perspective for 2021), I raised the question of whether or not it was possible to be optimistic after all we have been through in 2020. Eternal optimist that I am, my response was a resounding yes. There were still reasons to be optimistic. Then the events of January 6 (already being referred to by some as 1/6, along the lines of 9/11) took place.
Now I ask again: is it still possible to be optimistic about 2021? As you may guess, my answer is still yes.
In speaking about January 6, though, it’s hard to know where to begin. For most of us, the events of that day have shaken us to the core (if I’m permitted an occasional cliché). With the attacks on the United States Capitol, we added a second existential crisis to the pandemic we’ve been experiencing for almost a year.
An Attempt at Optimism after 2020.
There is no question but that the pandemic has brought untold suffering into global society, especially here in the United States where planning for the pandemic was thwarted significantly. I do not need to describe in detail what the pandemic has meant for us, and each of us has our own story (my own heart-breaking issue has to do with a 98-year-old relative living in care whom we have not been able to visit since February 23 last year).
In my earlier message, I expressed my agreement with Former U.S. Vice-President Gore‘s emphasis on hope as the attribute that will be of most help as we move into the new crisis year. Also, referring to another writer I admire very much, I took Peter Wehner up on his list of values we need to emphasize at this time in our history, things like “honor, decency, courage, beauty, and truth. Tenderness, human empathy, and a sense of duty. A good society. And a commitment to human dignity.” We needed to hear that.
I did not think I could say these things as well as Gore and Wehner said them, and I did not try. And as it happened, I did not need to since, coincidentally, Jeffrey Sachs – an influential thinker and teacher I admire greatly and read often – offered his own thoughts about Optimism for the New Year. Professor Sachs suggests five reasons for optimism:
- The success of many countries in suppressing the COVID-19 virus,
- The arrival of new vaccines,
- The defeat of President Trump in the November election,
- The success of the United Nations in 2020, which will be built on, and
- The digital revolution (“the leading unspoken protagonist of the global pandemic response”).
What we are now trying to do is to make some attempt to deal with what happened when American citizens – supporting the United States President as he sought to overturn the legitimate results of the 2020 Presidential Election – took the law into their own hands. At President Trump’s prompting, thousands of his supporters marched to the United States Capitol and invaded it. Congress was in session, and our nation’s legislators were sent into safe refuge in the building, forced out of the respective sessions taking place in the United States Senate and the House of Representatives.
And the invaders broke the law happily and joyfully, intent on creating their own “revolution” (as some of them called it) and the result was many injuries and five deaths. These lawless rioters were attempting a coup, determined to bring down America’s democracy because they had been told – repeatedly – that the election was fraudulent, despite more than sixty court cases in which no fraud was proved. Christopher Krebs, the nation’s former top cybersecurity official, reported in a joint statement with state and local election officials that the election had been “the most secure in American history.” Before he was fired by the President, Krebs, the former director of the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), had been responsible for a “rumor control” page on the agency’s website, a document meant to push back against misinformation and disinformation regarding the November 3 election.
What Do We Do?
Readers who have noticed this essay’s title are already aware of what I suggest. It might be simplistic and, indeed, depending on other factors that will be brought into the picture, it might not even be practical. Nevertheless, I will not be deterred, and I offer this anyway as each of us tries to figure out how to speak about, write about, or otherwise do something to contribute to a solution to the problem we all – as citizens – recognize we now have.
I am suggesting that we look at how we converse (in the workplace, in our personal lives, or in any other situation where two or more of us come together to try to reach an agreed-upon solution to a problem or an issue). In doing so, we look at two methodologies that can be combined to lead us to such a solution.
First, I advocate looking at and thinking about collaborative knowledge services, an approach to sharing information, knowledge, and learning that has been my professional focus for the greater part of my career. Its purpose is simple, to ensure the highest levels of knowledge sharing, bringing into play all the qualities and attributes of any well-developed and well-implemented discussion, a level of conversational intercourse that simply builds on all those ingredients people like Gore and Wehner (and many others) put forward. In collaborative knowledge services, all participants recognize the value of what they are trying to achieve, and they refuse to allow the “ugly side” of conversation to inhibit their approach to sharing what they need to share with one another.
The key construct here is conversation, conversation built on collaboration, and when we bring in another approach, another way for moving forward with a productive discussion, we can cut through some of the tension already in place. This other approach – which I recommend practicing in conjunction with collaborative knowledge services – is conversational leadership. David Gurteen, known for his work in developing conversational leadership as a discussion tool, describes it this way:
Conversational leadership is about appreciating the extraordinary but underutilized power of conversation, recognizing that we can all practice leadership and adopt a conversational approach to the way in which we live and work together in an increasingly complex world.
Helping us recognize the connection between conversational leadership and collaborative knowledge services is John Hovell, another specialist in conversational leadership. Hovell offers tantalizing questions which, I submit, can be put to practical use as we enter into conversation with those with whom we must discuss the troubles of 1/6. With conversational leadership, Hovell says, we recognize that all of us can lead, and we can adopt a conversational approach to the way we live and work together. We do so by asking three core questions:
- Are we having the conversation we need to be having right now?
- Are we having it in the way we need to be having it?
- In what ways are we forming community in this conversation?
And it is this last detail that provides our point of convergence, for Hovell and Gurteen use a new term that opens a different way of thinking about the connection between knowledge services and conversational leadership; they call it “conversational communityship” (instead of “conversational leadership”). When Gurteen and Hovell use this phrase, they make it clear that we are all leaders. In doing so, they help all of us recognize that it is our shared community that unites us, regardless of which “side” of the difficult discussion we are on.
Our Biggest Challenge
But is it something we can do? Now, suddenly, we realize that it is not easy, and your author is worried. My suggestion here seeks to bring us to the simple place where the combination of collaborative knowledge services and conversational communityship helps us “fix” what needs to be fixed. And that, in turn, takes me back to my opening statement: “It’s hard to know where to begin.” I want us to consider this connection I am suggesting (of course – each of these two approaches fascinate me), but I need help.
How do we start? What steps could we recommend? If this were a consulting assignment and our client was seeking to bring together two diametrically opposed groups of workers – people who were damaging the organization and its success by being so opposed – what would you do? Would a traditional knowledge audit/management review provide background content for bringing the two sides together? Would that content enable you and your team to develop a strategy for bringing everyone to the same conclusion, with the same goals and objectives, the same recommendations? Or is the situation one that cannot be repaired, one that you and your team can’t recommend how to fix, and you simply walk away? What would happen then?
As I said, I am not sure I know the answer, but I hope by putting these thoughts together, readers of this essay will themselves think about what is happening in our society. And about how well all of us, and all human beings with built-in, innate goodwill, can bring our country together. Can we figure out what to do?
I think so, and even if I am not able to provide the answers, I can still be inspired and try to think about what can be done. And I can – with much appreciation – turn to the thoughts of one of my sons. When Austin St. Clair read the New Year’s Day piece, he responded with a very supportive letter, one which ended with just what his father needed to hear:
Stay optimistic. The other option is not a choice.